Swimming the French wayArles, Summer 2012

Children running around with no clothes on, taking showers using hoses in the street, and changing into bathing suits right on the beach.

It’s not a French film. It’s real life.

Our center is above an art gallery. When we first entered, there were photographs of nude people, mostly women, lining the walls. Our group leader explained the collection would be up for one month.

Okay, I conceded, the stereotype about the French and nudity in art is true. But there’s no way this was a representation of real life.

I was soon to be proven wrong.

My host-mother, who treats me with a firm grasp of the phrase “Southern hospitality,” invited me Saturday to join her, her friends and her kids on a trip to the river.

I thought she meant we would hop down to the Rhone and dip our feet in. Little did I know I was in for an adventure.

It took us over an hour by car to get to the spot, which was breathtakingly beautiful. I had never swum in a river, so I was a bit surprised when everyone spread out their towels over the pebbles just like at the beach. When in France, I thought, better do as the French do. So I spread out my towel.

The river was a little fast (and freezing!), so at first I was hesitant to cross. Then my host-mom and her friends, who didn’t seem to be very strong swimmers, took off to a rock in the middle.

When in France, I thought. So I crossed the river.

Then I saw guys jumping off a rock protruding over the deepest part. I climbed up and asked where it was safe to jump. They showed me and started counting, so I took the plunge.

It was so invigorating. I let fish nibble at my toes, passed by a snake without having a panic attack, let a frog rest on my stomach. I felt so free, so French.

Until my host-mom took her top off.

She didn’t lounge around nude like one of her friends and her three-year-old son did, but it shocked me all the same. In France, I learned, there’s nothing wrong with changing on the beach, even if you’re a mother of small children.

Several friends from my program went to the beach with their host families this weekend. It turns out my experience was not unique.

Someone saw a “very large woman completely naked.” Another said her host-dad stripped all the way down in front of her.

In between giggles, we agreed that the subject is pretty interesting.

What is it about the French that makes them so comfortable with themselves?

During orientation, my director explained that the term “hurting someone’s feelings” has no French translation. In the south of France, everything is “ca va” (okay). Their attitude reminds me of Simon and Pumbaa.

So if you want to strip down and you’re around people with this attitude, why not do it?

But in case you’re wondering, no, I have no desire to take my top off.

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